Walk through Hong Kong’s central business district or a major shopping area, and the city may appear to be the same vibrant, cosmopolitan global hub it once was. But, speaking as researchers in Hong Kong universities, we urge academic colleagues around the world to resist whatever attractions Hong Kong might offer. Move to Hong Kong today, and you become complicit with a despotic government desperate to salvage the city’s international reputation while continuing to oppress its people, brainwash its children and snuff out its liberal civil society.
Appearances can deceive. Even before its vague, made-for-abuse National Security Law was imposed in 2020, Hong Kong had already declined into an elegantly dressed police state. A traffic cop could angrily pull a revolver and shoot a youth; a militarized squad of police could assault a train full of people who posed no threat, indiscriminately beating commuters and protesters alike; trigger-happy cops could shoot pepper-spray balls at children — all without being held accountable. The National Security Law makes everything worse, enabling vindictive authorities to turn a minor traffic violation into a charge of “inciting secession,” with a sentence of up to life in prison on conviction.
Now that the city’s massive, richly funded paramilitary police and Office for Safeguarding National Security have crushed organized democratic resistance, Hong Kong has further devolved into a disturbing, alien place. Nonviolent young people wait in dread for the police to come barging through their door and arrest them for having quietly protested in the street. Grassroots activists and elected legislators are thrown behind bars for months without trial simply for running in a primary election. Veteran democrats, such as former legislators Martin Lee (83 years old) and Margaret Ng (73), are dragged into court to be convicted of “organizing” a massive march that sprang up spontaneously when hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Hong Kong’s streets after finding they could not fit into Victoria Park, the confined area where police had authorized a rally.
These and other injustices are not anomalous, accidental failures in an otherwise sound system of rule of law. They are the aggressively pursued lawfare tactics of an autocratic government that, were free elections permitted, would lose by a landslide — as our 2019 District Council elections showed, when a historically high turnout of 71 per cent of registered voters gave pro-democracy candidates388 outof 452 seats and control of 17 out of 18 local district councils.
Given the conduct of its government, police force and judiciary since 2019, Hong Kong deserves the status of a pariah regime. Yet officials, from Chief Executive Carrie Lam down, desperately want to maintain a veneer of normalcy. A vital part of their attempts to paper over the death of the city’s basic freedoms and limited but genuine democracy is to protect the prized reputation of Hong Kong’s universities. Their strategy includes an aggressive recruiting campaign, among other tactics.
But our campuses are rapidly changing for the worse. Students’ freedom of speech has been heavily curtailed. Both flagship universities, the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, have shut down their campus student unions, spirited contributors to civil discourse in Hong Kong for decades. The University of Hong Kong went so far as to seal off a massive “Lennon Wall” student groups used to post social and political commentary. Officials at the Chinese University of Hong Kong appear to have reported their own students to the state security police for shouting political slogans.
Colleagues quietly choose not to offer courses on politically sensitive topics. Professors and researchers censor themselves, smothering class discussions and modifying how they phrase survey questions. Authorities have announced that university curricula must be changed to support the new state security regime. Universities will be expected to “prevent and suppress” potential violations of an ill-defined, dangerously expansive security law. Top administrative posts at the universities are gradually stacked with administrators loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Any doubt about the future of Hong Kong’s universities was surely erased in June 2020, when five Hong Kong university presidents issued a joint statement supporting the National Security Law, acknowledging “the need for national security legislation.”
As things stand today, academics or professionals who take up new employment in Hong Kong are signing up to knowingly support an unaccountable, autocratic government’s attempts to gaslight the international community into accepting systematic, wholesale violations of international treaty obligations and of Hong Kong’s own Basic Law — the territory’s constitution — which guarantees freedom of speech, association, assembly, procession and demonstration.
The Hong Kong government hopes to leverage its deep financial resources and the territory’s traditional commercial and institutional strengths to buy outsiders’ respect, or at least their silence. But in 2021 the trade-off is too dear. Cooperate with a vindictive, rogue regime, and you forfeit your own moral dignity. Authorities in Hong Kong, secure in their bubble of wishful thinking, see no reason they or the regime they serve should face any repercussions for their deplorable violations of civil and human rights. But actions must have consequences. It comes down to all of us, individually and collectively, to ensure they do.
People once felt at home in Hong Kong because it was an open, liberal society. Now we in academia wait for the thousands of new state security police to turn their attention to the universities, as they work their way through activists, politicians, the civil service, journalists and primary and secondary school educators. Many of us wish we could protest with our feet and emigrate, but either lack the resources or have family or professional roots here that are difficult to sever. We did not choose to live under today’s despotic regime. It was foisted on us. Those who do have a choice should make clear where their values lie. Don’t align yourself with the oppressor. Shun Hong Kong.
The authors are Hong Kong-based academics. Open Canada has agreed not to name them to protect their safety.